How Buhari Can Avoid the Dead End, By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

That Buhari is not the perfect president for Nigeria at this point in the 21st century is not in dispute. What is gradually being acknowledged is that he is an imperfect president of an imperfect country where the citizens have perfected the act of voting against their own interest and siding with the very people who have reduced them to paupers.

As an imperfect country, it is therefore not surprising that Nigeria has Buhari as a leader during this period of transition. What Nigeria will transition to depends not on fate. It is a matter of where the imperfect president of an imperfect nation can position the populace on the spectrum of his near-precarious propositions.

As the pendulum swings, it will pass through several highs and lows. Where it rests will determine what happens for the rest of Nigeria’s life.

President Buhari has had his own share of missteps in the last eight months. It started with his appointments that were unnecessarily lopsided. It was quickly followed by confusion over policy directions. The ongoing zigzag approach to monetary matters is most frustrating to any student of basic economics. The decision to keep burning the foreign reserve in defense of the naira is baffling. The same could be said about the issue of oil subsidy and overall direction of the oil industry, specifically the lingering question of what to do with the failing state-owned oil refineries.

In most of these cases, Buhari has eaten the humble pie and reversed himself. It is believed that he is finally beginning to see the light in superior arguments that are contrary to his long-held, some even say, stubborn view. That is a good sign for Nigeria. In this era of interdependent economies on both macro and micro level, good intentions do not persuade the realities in the market to bend to any leader’s whims. The markets punish those who flout the laws, notwithstanding their intentions.

Another area where Buhari frightened people of goodwill was in matters of dealings with the judiciary. It all came into clear focus during his first media chat. Buhari was doing well at his first presidential media chat until he was asked the question about the continued detention of pro-Biafran leader, Nnamdi Kanu and former NSA, Sambo Dasuki. The answer that Buhari gave quickly became a window into his heart.

“You can see the type of atrocities that those people committed against soldiers and the country. The former president goes to the governor of the Central Bank and say, ‘give N40bn to so, so, so… And then he fails to account for it and you allow him to go and see his daughter in London while and you have two million people in IDPs, half of them don’t even know their parents. Which kind of country do you want to run?”

“And the one you are calling Kanu. Do you know he has two passports – one Nigerian, one British – and he came to this country without any passport?… There are criminal allegations against him and I hope the court will listen to the case.”

By implicitly justifying the intentional flouting of court orders just to continue to have the two detained, Buhari not only went off his script but he also went off the standard democratic path. The implications are wide and far-reaching.

There are two ingredients essential for the sustenance of a democracy. One is the periodic invocation of the consent of the people- that is when those who govern obtain the mandate to rule. The other is a universal obedience to the rule of law.  Democracy flounders when any of these is missing.

Embedded in the consent to govern is an implicit understanding that the governed and those governing would share and abide by the same set of rules collectively agreed upon. Any departure from these fundamentals ultimately leads to a descent into anarchy.

The judicial principles that established these cherished protocols were long and tested. Political writer, George Savile and English jurist, William Blackstone articulated two of the most famous. Mr. Savile noted, “Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.” And Blackstone on his part stated that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

On these two legs rests the whole stool of the rule of law principle.

Even when a government does not profess or pretend to be democratic, it runs into problems for violating these essentials.

While the governed have the civic responsibility to abide by the rule of law, those governing also have the moral obligation to do so, too.  Martin Luther King Jr. drew a line in the sand during the Civil Rights struggle when he said:

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

For those who are governing, going against the rule of law wears off their moral authority.  In a conflict between what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the moral responsibility to disobey an unjust law” and the moral authority to enforce an unjust law, the moral responsibility to disobey an unjust law wins.

The people understand that men are not hanged for stealing horses but so that horses would not be stolen. At the same time, there is a consensus out there that it is better that ten guilty persons are free than for an innocent person to suffer.

By taking steps that undermine these core values of a just judicial foundation, Buhari is creating friction that will ultimately wear off his moral authority.

Disregard for the rule of law is intoxicating. What follows is often a surprise, even to the intoxicated, especially when the hangover is gone.

Individual whims and proclivities cannot be substituted for the rule of law. By accepting to operate under a democratic dispensation, you have to accept the imperfections of democracy and put up with its inefficiencies.

In recent days, there are indications that Buhari has pulled back from the previous position of directly o indirectly interfering with the judiciary system. There is no doubt that reforms are needed in the judiciary. But how to attain such reforms is not by undermining judiciary authority.

At the end, what will determine Nigeria’s fate is not Buhari’s endless dialectics of gaffes but measurable results that will improve the lives of Nigerians.

Buhari’s saving grace is that he inherited a country that has dehumanized most of its citizens for generations. Such a country will swallow the imperfection of her president if there is a glimmer of hope that he could restore an iota of decency to her long-suffering citizens.

Buhari has an opportunity to achieve that. Astute political observers believe that he will as long as he tempers his stubbornness with a little dose of wise counsel. If he fails to rein it in, what is at stake for Nigeria is a lot more than what we have encountered before. Nigeria is not just at another crossroad. Nigeria is at a final exit before the tollgate. But this is no ordinary toll- this is a toll that leads to a dead end.


Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo’s latest book is This American Life Sef!  It is available on